At the risk of being considered a mere skid mark on the landscape of American sportswriting, I've got a confession to make: I've never attended an auto race. Not CART, not IRL, certainly not Formula 1 ... alas, not NASCAR. I do live in the South, though, and I do drive a car. So my appreciation (empathy?) for the legion of race fans coast to coast is well into the red line. I stay in touch from a distance, recognizing the difference between Michael Schumacher and Michael Waltrip, marking my calendar for the Daytona 500 in February, the Indy 500 in May.
It's about time I mark my calendar for the Sam's Town 250 in October. For those of you who may find yourselves in the land of NASCAR novices described above, I've got a lesson for you, one passed along by the vice president of Memphis Motorsports Park himself, Jason Rittenberry. When the fifth annual Sam's Town 250 takes place Saturday in Millington, I'm going to do what I can to "feel the power." If I don't, it may well run me over.
The Sam's Town 250 is the 30th event in the 34-race Busch Series schedule. Thinking in baseball terms, you might consider the Busch Series a Triple-A feeder system for the more glamorous world of Winston Cup (home to the Earnhardts, Pettys, and Allisons). "Most Busch teams are owned by a team owner that also owns Winston Cup teams," explains Rittenberry. "Those team owners have more sponsorship dollars to share with their Busch teams and also have more resources such as team engineers, research and development departments, and engine builders."
Memphis Motorsports Park is a short track by NASCAR standards, a three-quarter-mile paved oval (compared with the two-and-a-half-mile superspeedway at Daytona). Not a whole lot of room for 43 lead-footed drivers to negotiate at speeds around 90 mph for more than 300 laps. Past winners in Memphis are Jeff Green (1999), Kevin Harvick (2000), Randy LaJoie (2001), and Scott Wimmer (2002). This year's winner will take home a check in the neighborhood of $75,000 (total purse: $1.2 million).
As more than 30,000 leather-lunged gearheads make their way to Millington this weekend, the Bluff City will once again celebrate sport as it embraces the local treasure that is St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Just as our tennis event each February and golf tournament each spring have raised millions for St. Jude, the Sam's Town 250 is entering its second year of affiliation with the acclaimed medical institution. "In 2002, we raised over $50,000 for St. Jude," notes Rittenberry. "This year, we expect to raise at least $65,000 for them. We're still building the events that directly support St. Jude."
While Saturday's race will be my first as a race fan, thanks to the good folks at Race-On (their motto: "Live the Dream! Drive the Car!"), I have been behind the wheel of a genuine Busch Series automobile. I took eight laps last month -- behind a pace car, mind you -- and never swallowed. Not once. Sitting behind 500 horses, exceeding 100 mph on a track short of a mile -- there are no straightaways. Turn, gas, turn. Turn, gas, turn. (I actually think I could smell adrenaline.) Now, when I consider having 42 other drivers tracking my Chevy Monte Carlo, swerving around that same finite oval with little regard for my ability to swallow ... Yep, these fellas are athletes.
So give college football the cold shoulder, if just for a week. Pack up the kids (or the kegs, your choice) and head north. You'll find volume, you'll find crowds. You'll see color and, yes, you'll see athletes. And keep your eyes on the turns. This kind of rush is contagious.